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10.31.09

The Netroots Take the Gloves Off

They pushed the public option back onto the table. Now, liberal activists are stepping up the pressure on Obama—and hitting wavering moderates with corruption charges.

The liberal activists and bloggers who helped keep the public option alive—pressuring Democratic leaders after it was declared virtually dead a month ago—are now stepping up their attacks against any senator in the Democratic caucus who might join a Republican filibuster. For good measure, many of them are also sharply criticizing President Obama for failing to pressure legislators for strong reforms. Their criticism of Obama has been echoed in milder terms by such outspoken reformers as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). Weiner said bluntly on MSNBC, “If the President calls [members], it’s tough to say no. We’ve been kind of left to do this on our own, and we need the full-throated support of the president at a time like this when we’re having a big national debate.” As a result of Obama’s absent leadership, the watered-down House version of the public option unveiled Thursday wasn’t fully competitive or affordable, he noted.

Now corruption allegations against potential supporters of a filibuster have ramped up the war within the Democratic Party. Jane Hamsher told the Daily Beast that one of her emerging themes is: “Is Barack Obama tough enough to stand up to corruption in his own party?”

Some cable TV talk shows are filled with liberal critics. MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show showcased more intra-party attacks by featuring influential bloggers Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake (twice) and Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com, who lobbed incendiary allegations of health-industry corruption involving Senators Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman – and their wives.

Before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced his support for a public option with an opt-out for states on Oct. 26, he and wavering Democrats were subjected to withering TV attack ads; polling sponsored by the 100,000-member Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) last week that disclosed a majority of Nevada voters regarded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as “weak,”, and phone-banking sponsored by the Firedoglake PAC threatening Reid, up for reelection, with a primary challenger.

Now the targets have been expanded to those in the Democratic caucus who may join a filibuster. “This is out-and-out corruption,” Hamsher, a movie producer ( Natural Born Killers) turned progressive blogger, told The Daily Beast. She charged that lucrative donations to the Bayh and Lieberman campaigns by health industries and the health-related corporate positions of their wives amounted to “legalized bribery.”

Whether it’s due to such public pressure or merely a change of heart, Bayh, for one, has already “clarified”–or altered–on Oct. 29 the stance he took just the day before, when he leaned toward supporting a filibuster. Then he told CBS’s Bob Schieffer he may block a bill from moving forward for a vote if he didn’t consider it “fiscally responsible.” But a day later his office released a statement, “Senator Bayh will support moving forward to a health care debate on the Senate floor, where he will work hard to address his concerns…” He later added that it would be “extremely unlikely” that he’d filibuster against the bill.

Adam Green, the 33-year-old co-founder of the PCCC, boasted in an e-mail sent to supporters: “Hours after a new poll showing Sen. Bayh's constituents want him to oppose a health-care filibuster…Bayh's office announced significant movement.”

Now corruption allegations against potential supporters of a filibuster have ramped up the war within the Democratic Party. Hamsher disclosed to the Daily Beast that one of her emerging themes is: “Is Barack Obama tough enough to stand up to corruption in his own party?”

Both Bayh and Lieberman have denied doing the bidding of health care industries, as well as any conflicts of interest because of their wives’ positions drawing lucrative paydays from corporate health interests. Susan Bayh has earned a reported $2 million dollars over the last six years as a member of the board of leading insurer WellPoint. Hadassah Lieberman formerly worked for two PR and lobbying firms, Hill & Knowlton and APCO, handling pharmaceutical and health care clients, as columnist Joe Conason of Salon reported, but was never a registered lobbyist. Lieberman’s spokesman declined to answer written and phoned inquiries from the Daily Beast.

But Bayh’s press secretary released a statement to The Daily Beast: “Neither Mrs. Bayh nor any employee or lobbyist for WellPoint can lobby Senator Bayh or any member of his staff. Our strict ethics policy goes above and beyond what is required under Senate ethics rules.” The spokesperson added, “He has voted against the insurance industry numerous times.”

While left-wing pressure is moving the debate, one of the leading reform organizations advocating health-care reform expresses wariness of the tactics. “Rachel Maddow and Jane Hamsher are talking to the Democratic base, but [these corruption charges] don’t resonate with swing voters,” says Alan Charney, the program director of USAction, the lead grass-roots organization in the Health Care for America Now (HCAN) coalition, with its 1,000 local and national groups. “The bottom line is not to score rhetorical points, but real points by moving members of Congress to do the right thing,” he observes, favoring a strategy he calls “positive pressure.”

“How’s that working out for them?” says Hamsher scornfully. “Alan Charney’s full of shit.” She accuses HCAN of pulling its punches against Democratic legislators, and only just attacking Republicans, to further a partisan agenda. “Their advertising has had no effect on health care reform,” she insists, although, in fact, HCAN helped generate nearly three million signatures for a public option and hundreds of thousands of calls. Moreover, she blames the coalition for months of passivity, failing to attack the insurance industry. She claims that didn’t change until the group got the go-ahead for such attacks from the DNC and the White House after Obama’s team gave up in September on appeasing that “stakeholder.” In truth, the coalition started attacking insurance companies as far back as last December, as their press releases show, but they didn’t escalate with an effective, high-profile, multi-media campaign until September. (Charney has told the Daily Beast that the late-launched attacks against insurers by HCAN were simply a strategic mistake.)

Feeling that they are gaining ground after pushing Reid to back the public option, Hamsher and other critics are now using hard-hitting charges against Democrats and Lieberman as part of their broader efforts to pressure the Democratic leadership and the President to rein in potential filibustering members with LBJ-style threats where it hurts. That’s a notion that’s currently seen by most conventional Hill observers as far-fetched. Lieberman’s Connecticut colleague, Sen. Chris Dodd, a public option supporter, dismissed on Oct. 28 the idea of stripping Lieberman of his chairmanship as “ridiculous.” He was promptly derided by a pack of blogs.

On Oct. 29, though, Hamsher, among others, was cheered by the powerful chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Tom Harkin (D-IA), who issued a veiled warning to Lieberman in a conference call with reporters. “He wants to caucus with us and, of course, he enjoys his chairmanship of the [Homeland Security] committee because of the indulgence of the Democratic Caucus. So, I’m sure all of those things will cross his mind before the final vote,” Harkin said.

Polling remains a primary weapon in the drive to keep Senate Democrats loyal to health reform. In a new poll co-sponsored by PCCC and released Friday, Oct. 30, the group found that it would be “career suicide” for embattled Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln to join Republicans in filibustering a public option bill. In fact, 49% of Democrats and 35% of Independents say they’d be less likely to vote for her if she did.

At least two major membership organizations so far, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America (DFA) with one million members and the five-million-member MoveOn.Org Political Action have launched initiatives against pro-filibuster Democrats. The DFA campaign urges members to ask Democrats to strip any filibuster proponents of their chairmanships. The group is on track to have 150,000 signatures on its petition by next week.

“I would like to see the President fight much harder, but this [health reform] is an issue progressives can fight for and Congress can make happen,” says Charles Chamberlain, DFA’s political director. “ We can do the arm-twisting.”

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com, and numerous other publications. He also blogs regularly on labor, health, and other reform issues for In These Times and Huffington Post.